The protection of British public rights of way: a model for the Pityuses?

(Article sent for publication to the magazine El Pitiús 2020, edited by the Institut d’Estudis Eivissencs, in Ibiza. You can also read it in Catalan and Spanish.)

My friend Martin Davies has lent me the book The Wild Rover: A Blistering Journey Along Britain’s Footpaths (London: Collins, 2012) (1). The author, Mike Parker, writes a vivid account of the history and current problems of the byways and footpaths of the United Kingdom. Despite the geographical and cultural distance, the similarities with Ibiza and Formentera are manifest. The British experience can help us to reflect on our own rural road network.

The Wild Rover

Parker describes the process of creating the network of public rights of way, brings us closer to the place that byways occupy in British identity and explains the process through which they have become part of the cultural and historical landscape. The author describes in detail his experience walking along the most emblematic routes of the United Kingdom: from the ancient Ridgeway, to the south of England; to Pennine Way, which reaches Scotland… passing through the streets of London itself. The author presents the testimonies of a multitude of characters – owners, farmers, activists, artists, historians, hikers, bike and horse riders, etc. – who offer their opinion (for or against) regarding recognition and promotion of rights of way.

The Wild Rover is a tribute to the extraordinary network of trails that refer to an ancestral history and that penetrate every corner of the country. Parker proclaims that it is a “unique in the world” framework because of its density. From the Pityuses we could discuss such a statement: on the Mapa Topogràfic de les Illes Balears (the official cartography of the islands) 3,500 linear kilometers of byways appear on the island of Ibiza; all the footpaths and old bridle paths (most of which are not included in this map), which would substantially increase the figure, should be added. According to the data that we will see later, England and Wales have 1.6 linear kilometers of public rights of way for each square kilometer. In Ibiza and Formentera we still do not know which byways will be declared public or with public service, but this ratio could be multiplied by five. If Mike Parker is among the few Britons who have not yet visited Ibiza, we should invite him.

The Wild Rover (cover)
The Wild Rover, book cover (Source:

The origin of rights of way

Parker reviews the turbulent history of public rights of way in the United Kingdom and traces the chronology of the recovery of rights of way. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the time of industrial expansion and rural exodus – large areas of England and Wales were privatized taking advantage of the well-known Enclosure Acts, closing open spaces, rappelling land for community use and passing over of ancestral rights, such as rights of way (2). Since then, these previous rights of way have only been reluctantly recovered and in a very fragmentary way.

The defense of public rights of way began in 1824 in the Manchester area. It began as a class struggle, led by socialist groups, in open confrontation with more conservative positions. The legislative initiatives in favor of opening the byways and footpaths always came from the most radical wing of the Liberal and Labor parties (3).

In this way, in the United Kingdom it has been necessary more than a century of constant new legislation to reach, today, “a half decent network of public roads and a modest right to roam, especially in the uncultivated land, in England and Wales” (Parker, p. 57).

Legislation and cataloging of public roads

In 1948 the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill was approved. His ambition was to create twelve national parks and the first official long-distance trails. It also aimed to organize the chaos about the byways and footpaths, forcing local authorities to create a definitive map of the network of rights of way. Seventy years later, some municipalities have cataloged hundreds of byways; instead, others have barely started work. (A good example of inventory, which I have known thanks to William Beacham, is the interactive map of Somerset, a municipality in the southwest of England.)

The recognition of British public roads has not been an easy task, especially when new link sections of official routes were opened. “Every inch of access to land and the use of footpaths has depended – and continues to depend – on tiny nuances of law, common practice and precedent, all sifted and nitpicked over in countless court cases” (id., p. 84). As of 1958, the Ramblers hiking association managed to get the national cartographic agency, the Ordnance Survey, to begin to include rights of way or public trails on official maps. The Pennine Way, the first long-distance route or Britain’s National Trail, 258 miles in length, was inaugurated in 1965. The country currently has ten National Trails and another 1,200 marked routes. The registered network of public right of ways has a length of about 140,000 miles (225,000 km), which occupy about 5,000 km² of surface.

In 2000, the Countryside & Rights of Way Act was signed, which establishes until 2026 the deadline for documenting and registering old byways (prior to 1949) that do not yet appear in the official inventories or maps (4). The estimated length of these rights of way is 10,000 miles in England and Wales (5). This means that thousands of trails and bridle paths face their final disappearance, often threatened by new buildings or roads. A small army of volunteers is working to avoid it, as we will see later.

In the Spanish State, the development of legislation to defend public rights of way is much more recent. The Regulation of Assets of Local Entities (1986) (6), determines that local corporations are obliged to carry out the inventory of all their assets and rights, including rural byways and footpaths. As for the byways, the Pityusan city councils breach (or do so partially) this legal obligation, in contrast to most of the other Balearic municipalities.


Dead roads and camins de missa

Returning to The Wild Rover, I was surprised to be able to identify the British corpse paths or dead roads with our camins de missa (mass roads). These are roads related to religious practices or services: a network of byways and footpaths that connect the rural houses with the sacred places, the church or the cemetery of the parish.

Camí des Bardal (Sant Agustí)
Camí des Bardal, one of the camins de missa of Sant Agustí des Vedrà (Ibiza)

Mike Parker explains that the mesh of roads used to transport the deceased to their burial are often primary roads, but in other cases they involve trails impregnated with a supernatural reputation and superstition. When the official investigations on the roads are carried out, the belief persists that when a coffin was carried along a byways, it automatically became a right of way (we have often heard our elders say the same thing). Once established, the road used to be treated with the greatest respect.

The people who moved the coffin had to strictly observe some customs: the deceased always had to go with his feet ahead and, above all, the funeral procession could not deviate even a span of the route, under threat of calamities. Often the paths of the dead deliberately crossed streams, stiles and crosses, as these were thought to be liminal places that prevented the spirits from returning to our world and wreaking havoc on us. In the Pityuses Islands, this ethnographic work is pending. In fact, documenting and cataloging the camins de missa is an urgent task, because the informants who remember and recognize them are often elderly people.

Closure of public roads

For the British case, Parker relates the closure of roads with the “new” owners who are oblivious to local tradition. For example, the American singer Madonna, who acquired a large property in the south east of England, starred in some litigations with hikers. In Ibiza and Formentera, a territory where the population of Pityusan origin maintains the control of three quarters of the rustic land, holding the foreigners responsible does not seem an argument capable of explaining the increasing privatization of rural space.

Rather I understand that the progressive closure of the roads (or the deviation from its original layout) which we have witnessed in recent decades in the Pityuses is due to cultural and social changes: most of the old farms are now preferentially places of residence, the entire estate is perceived as a private garden and concepts that were previously alien to the rural world, such as privacy or intimacy, have been introduced. In addition, the abandonment of the countryside – also of the roads – is also a very relevant factor in understanding the loss of public rights of way.

No Trespassing
Warning: no trespassing. Source:

Regarding the aforementioned right to roam through uncultivated spaces, it is known that the tradition in Ibiza and Formentera is to allow free access. This customary practice is being limited because it clashes with the power of private owners to fence their farms. As a consequence, seemingly trivial activities – but related to the right to enjoy the natural environment, recognized in the Spanish Constitution itself – such as going to look for mushrooms or simply walking through the forest, are not guaranteed in the future.

Road maintenance and uses

Throughout the United Kingdom there are associations of volunteers (Ramblers, SusTrans, Open Spaces Society) that ensure the maintenance of the trails. Without their work, many byways and footpaths would have disappeared. Mike Parker highlights the ideological mainstreaming of the participants in these groups: they all work for the same common good. The result is that forgotten byways have been recovered, new fences and gates are installed where there are cattle, the byways and footpaths are signposted and included on the official maps of the Ordnance Survey. However, it is a job that a part of the farmers and owners who live in the rural environment do not see with good eyes.

In Ibiza and Formentera it seems plausible to adopt a similar strategy for the conservation of the paths that, on the other hand, is not alien to our tradition: until the seventies of the twentieth century, public roads were maintained in a communal way by the neighbors who were using them.

Another aspect that could be imported is the hierarchical signposting of the National Trails. From private byways with access allowed, footpaths, bridle paths (also suitable for horses and bicycles), roads with road traffic (but quads and off-road vehicles not allowed) and roads open to all types of traffic (in some cases the traffic can be seasonally limited).

Types of public rights of way (table)
Types of rights of way in England and Wales. Source:

Parker is also interested in the social profile of byways and footpath users in England: he notes that the trails are not usually suitable for people with functional diversity and that the youngest and ethnic minorities do not frequent them. This highlights cultural differences. To illustrate, the testimony of a middle-class Anglo-Pakistani is brought up, which states that neither he nor his family will be seen “humbling themselves wandering around as peasants” on the footpaths.

Public investment in public roads

Mike Parker warns that budget cuts in recent years can compromise access to public roads and cause a setback in respect of the rights recovered. Why would local authorities have to improve investment in the trails? The author of The Wild Rover argues impeccably and with the particular English irony:

“In fact, paths should be one of the most generously funded arms of local government, so neatly do fulfil the obsessions and the orthodoxies of the moment. Having a walk is good for your health, both physical and mental. It is the ultimate in green and sustainable transport. It gets you out of your little fortress and into a realm where you might bump into a stranger, have quite a pleasant chat and they might not actually try to kill or mug you; it is therefore fabulous for combating loneliness, over-exposure to the Daily Mail and for helping foster community cohesion. And by seeing new places (and familiar places from new angles), a walk encourages us to learn about our landscape and our heritage. It’s win-win-win-win-win with a footpath.” (p. 289)

In Ibiza and Formentera, which enjoy a situation of healthy public accounts, it does not seem justified to continue leaving aside the byways and footpaths, an important public land reserve. Protecting them means preserving history, culture and heritage, circulating comfortably on foot or by bicycle and making our lives happier and healthier. In any case, here as anywhere, an active commitment of citizens will be necessary to preserve these public goods.

Camí de sa Pujada (Formentera)
The camí de sa Pujada, in Formentera, has been declared of cultural interest. Source:


(1) The Wild Rover is also a popular song of Irish origin.

(2) The English romantic poet John Clare (1793–1864) witnessed this accelerated change: “Fence meeting fence in owner’s little bounds / Of field and meadow, large as garden-grounds. / In little parcels little minds to please, / With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease” (fragment of the poem The Mores, quoted in The Wild Rover, p. 158).

(3) In 1908, the liberal politician Charles Trevelyan defended the right to roam across the British mountains with this allegation: “Who has ever been forbidden to wander over an Alp? Who has ever been threatened with an interdict in the Apennines? Who has ever warned off the rocks of the Tyrol? Who has ever been prosecuted for trespassing among Norwegian mountains?” (íd., p. 63).

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(6) Real Decreto 1372/1986, de 13 de junio. In similar terms it is expressed in the Ley 20/2006, de 15 de diciembre, Municipal y de Régimen Local de las Islas Baleares.

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